Smithsonian Perspectives

From its start, the Smithsonian had international interests, and it is now more than ever a global institution

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

As a Californian transplanted to Washington, and as a lawyer working in an institution dominated by scientists and historians, I confess I occasionally feel a bit like a foreigner here at the Smithsonian. During the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary celebration this year, I find myself thinking about our institution's namesake and founder, James Smithson, who apparently also felt himself something of an outsider.

Smithson was born the illegitimate son of the future Duke of Northumberland, and he was evidently never entirely at home in English society. Though a natural scientist of some renown in Britain, he spent a large portion of his life as an expatriate on the Continent. He never visited any part of the United States, but he pointedly specified in his will that his estate should be devoted to the establishment of an institution, in Washington, for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

Today, we are inclined to interpret the phrase "among men" as a somewhat archaic way of referring to all humankind. For Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, these two words directed him to found a "cosmopolitan establishment." In Henry's opinion, to limit its scope "to one city, or even to one country," would be "an invidious restriction" of the terms of Smithson's bequest.

From its beginning, then, the Smithsonian was to be an international organization as well as a national one. Over a century and a half, the Smithsonian has continued to pursue its dual mandate in both arenas of "increase and diffusion."

Contributing to the "increase" of knowledge are the Smithsonian's foreign research activities and exchanges. Some of the earliest collections of the National Museum were formed before the establishment of the Smithsonian, with materials assembled by the 1838-42 United States Exploring Expedition under U.S. Navy Lieut. Charles Wilkes. Since then, the Smithsonian has received objects from other expeditions and agencies, but most come from its staff members, who have traveled to almost every country of the world to conduct research and collect specimens. This international focus is both a result of, and a reason for, the distinctive collections-based nature of much Smithsonian research. Butterflies, spider plants, geologic strata and art movements all ignore national boundaries, and a global viewpoint is almost demanded if one is to study them properly. Most of our traveling researchers work in cooperation with local counterpart scholars and organizations overseas, sharing costs and specimens and providing training for younger collaborators. In addition to our own travelers, we maintain a number of staff members at permanent research sites abroad, notably at the four major research stations of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

Smithsonian collections are available for study by foreign scholars visiting Smithsonian facilities here, at other institutions where we lend materials for study or exhibition, and also increasingly by electronic means. Each year 20-30 percent of our resident fellows are distinguished researchers from other countries. We believe that this representation is crucial, because the community of scholars is now a global one, and we cannot maintain our important stature as a museum and research organization without these international connections.

Our channel for the international "diffusion" of knowledge is more familiar to the public. Ever since the great expositions of the 19th century, the Smithsonian has been known not only for scholarly publications but for public exhibitions on cultures and natural environments around the world. Our institution has also provided a new home for some of the first public museums in this country devoted to Asian and African art. We have attempted to make our collections and exhibitions accessible to the millions of people who are not able to travel to our facilities overseas or here in Washington. We have done this through loans and traveling exhibitions (such as "America's Smithsonian," currently touring the United States, and "The Smithsonian's America," recently on view in Japan), and through the Smithsonian's Internet website, one of the most visited of its order in the world.

Countless other international programs deserve mention, including our films, television and radio programs, international symposia and seminars, the lectures, performances and travel programs of our Smithsonian Associates, and articles in Smithsonian magazine. Our annual Folklife Festival features demonstrations and performances of various living cultural traditions from our own immigrant communities and from abroad.

While the American people might well take pride in this remarkable institution, it is important to recognize that the Smithsonian's work and its collections are maintained for — and with the help of — people from all over the world. To limit the Smithsonian to just this country would be an "invidious restriction" of the will of James Smithson — a foreigner in his own land who established a global institution in ours.

By I. Michael Heyman

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus